Sonos CEO Patrick Spence addresses the redesign of the company’s app

I doubt it would be fun to read Sonos CEO Patrick Spence’s customer emails over the past few weeks. Ever since the company rolled out an overhauled mobile app that was built from the ground up to allow for more personalization and better performance, the Sonos forums and especially the subreddit have been in an uproar. The new software was delivered without a number of features that were present in the outgoing version. Core features like sleep timers and alarms were nowhere to be found. And local music search/play was a mess – an insult to some of the company’s long-time customers.

In the immediate aftermath, Sonos dug in its heels, with the company’s Chief Product Officer saying it took “courage” to introduce a completely new user experience. That response… didn’t exactly land well either. On balance, the redesign has its proponents. Whether you love it, hate it, or are somewhere in between depends entirely on your individual usage scenario and how you normally use your Sonos system. Some people just play music on their speakers with AirPlay or Spotify Connect and are none the wiser about this whole fiasco.

But it’s easy to see why many say their trust in Sonos has been damaged after suddenly losing access to features without any warning just because they pressed the ‘update’ button. Instead of doing a public beta preview or temporarily offering the new app alongside the old one, Sonos forced everyone to adopt at once. (The Ace headphones and Roam 2 speaker would not have worked with the previous app.)

I’ve heard from private beta testers who told me they went out of their way to tell the company that this app wasn’t exactly ready for prime time. I’ve also heard on good authority that Sonos’ customer support requests have been through the roof since the redesign, so this is proving to be a difficult period on many levels. Unforgivably, the new app also marked a downgrade in terms of accessibility, something the company quickly resolved.

“What I would have liked was that we had probably communicated the roadmap a little more clearly.”

Last week I spoke briefly with Spence about the new Sonos Ace headphones. Predictably, he’s very excited about them and thinks the headphones will rival the Sonos brand in terms of sound quality, comfort and the eye-catching TV Audio Swap feature.

But of course I had to comment on the app situation. Spence has no regrets about Sonos making the leap, saying the company’s internal data shows the benefits of the new app are very real and are being felt by (less vocal) customers.

Here’s that part of our discussion:

Patrick Spence: There are two things that customers have been sending me emails and feedback on for years. One was headphones, but the other was the app. I would say probably the entire time I’ve been at Sonos, but as long as I’ve been CEO, I’ve heard customers say, “The app needs to be easier and more modern to navigate. It has to have faster response and lower latency,” and all these things. I’ve been using it since Christmas. Everyone at Sonos has been testing it for months. It has made – we know from data and from feedback – easier to navigate. But for customers it is a change. It’s faster and more responsive, and it’s a better overall experience.

“Once you add a feature to a platform, it can become the most important thing to someone.”

But of course there is a period in which people have to adapt to that change, and we are going through that period. We have the most passionate customers in the world. This architecture and everything we’ve done around the architecture allows us to move a little bit faster. We’ve essentially taken a monolith and broken it down into modular parts, allowing us to move faster in certain elements. Things like the alarm problem were a bug, right? So we can do it faster than in the past address it. And we’ll discover even more bugs as we go through this. We are ready and will make sure we get it addressed.

What I would have liked is that we had probably communicated the roadmap a little more clearly.

Chris Welch: Better message stating: “These features will be absent at launch.”

PS: Precisely. And “here they come.” Because we already had a plan on how to approach it. But the ‘why now’ was because it’s actually much easier to navigate, more responsive and just a better overall experience, and that’s the thing for the 99 percent of customers you’ll never hear from if you go through it.

But we mustn’t forget that we have the most passionate customers in the world. Once you add a feature to a platform – this is the most important thing for us to keep remembering as we go through this – once you add it, it may become the most important thing to one person, and that to that person is the most important. I think it’s important to make sure we have a plan and communicate it well. And we will be better as we go through this.

Yesterday, Sonos released another update to the new app with a handful of bug fixes focused on accessibility, local music playback, and more. And it provides a timeline for other ongoing improvements. The company is no doubt hoping that in six months this will all be a distant memory, that the new app will have achieved functionality parity (and more) with the software it replaced, and that all will be forgiven among its loyal customer base.

But for now, much of the community is still on edge as Sonos approaches the all-important release of its Ace headphones and enters a huge new product category that could drive growth amid declining demand for speakers and soundbars.

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